Rowan Williams, you do not have the right not to be offended

4 02 2008

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apologia for blasphemy laws here, liberally peppered as it is with the “anti-Semitism” shut-up.

It’s all very well to raise the spectre of anti-Semitism, as if that ends the discussion. But are legal sanctions really the best way to address bigotry towards religious minorities? Like as not they will only end up making martyrs of the bigots, as transpired in the case of the anti-vilification case against Catch the Fire Ministries in Australia several years ago. (As an interesting aside, Catch the Fire’s legal team attempted to invoke Australia’s own blasphemy law in that case, arguing that it only protected Christians, not Muslims.)

It is one thing to call, as Williams does, for an “argumentative democracy” and to take issue with . . .

a coarsening of the style of public debate and a lack of imagination about the experience and self-perception of others, especially those from diverse ethnic and cultural contexts, the arrogant assumption of the absolute ‘naturalness’ of one’s own position – none of this makes for an intelligent public discourse or for anything like actual debate, as opposed to plain assertion.

I couldn’t agree more, but in a liberal democracy the state should not be in the business of enforcing civility. If you’re so (rightly) committed to argumentative democracy, Dr Williams, then I suggest you put your money where your mouth is and argue for the civility we all desire, as ought to be your right and freedom.

Not much else to add: on this mater you can see also The Australian Atheist and Butterflies and Wheels and Ninglun. I think Williams makes an eloquent distinction, regarding one’s dealings with people of faith or of other faiths, between critique and abuse; it’s just that he makes a poor case for having the state enforce that distinction with legal sanctions against the latter.